Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2021

The Impersonators, by Jessica Anderson

Cover by Charles Blackman

I made rather heavy weather of this novel, Jessica Anderson’s sixth and the one with which she won the Miles Franklin Award for the second time in 1980.  I was expecting it to be as good as Tirra Lirra by the River which had also won the Miles Franklin, in 1978.  But for most of Part One The Impersonators is a confusing and somewhat lifeless story of competitors for an inheritance, and I wondered why, in the year that published Elizabeth Jolley’s remarkable Palomino, the Miles Franklin judges chose it.  (Had they used today’s more expansive interpretation of Miles Franklin’s terms of her bequest, the judges might well have chosen Shirley Hazzard’s brilliant The Transit of Venus, which as Charlotte Wood writes in her essay at the Sydney Review of Books,  is a novel exploring Australianness, despite being set almost entirely in Europe and America.)

I wondered what else was on the shortlist.  There are no records prior to 1987 so we don’t know.  Consulting Wikipedia’s list of notable Australian books published in 1980 to make an educated guess turned out to be fruitless, since it includes only four titles: The Impersonators, The Transit of Venus, Palomino and The Dying Trade by Peter Corris, which is a crime novel.

Published as The Only Daughter in the US, The Impersonators concerns Sylvie, who like her creator, has spent some years in London.  She is the only daughter of Jack Cornock and by coincidence has come back from her love affair with Europe just at the time that Jack has had a stroke and is expected to die.  Why she, and not her brother Stewart (a real estate agent) is the subject of speculation about getting all his money is a mystery I failed to solve.

Sylvie is not actually interested in money.  She is content to live a simple life as a teacher of Italian in order to spent half the year travelling. But other members of the family do need an injection of cash.  Jack married twice. His first wife Molly, is a tedious, ignorant woman who lets her second husband Ken bully her about her spending habits and is still so aggrieved by the divorce that she never mentions Jack’s second wife by name.  She wants Sylvie to get the lot at the expense of Greta, the second wife who brought four children to the marriage after the death of her husband 31 years ago.  These four children are unlikeable, with the possible exception of Harry, Greta’s oldest child, who wastes no time in launching a relationship with Sylvie.  He’s divorced, and so is she, but still, it seems mildly incestuous, even though there is no blood relationship between the two.

(There is a family tree depicting the relationship between Jack’s two families, and just as well because I kept needing to refer to it.)

Rosamund, Greta’s second child, is married to Ted Kitching, whose business is failing.  She is loyal and supportive until she learns that he is not only a crook, but an unrepentant one who will emerge unscathed while the shareholders lose everything.

Greta’s third child Hermione is married to Steven Fyfe, and is obsessed by Sydney real estate.  She wastes a lot of Stewart’s time looking at expensive houses they can’t afford.  For those of us who’ve never paid any attention to the petty snobberies of Sydney postcodes this preoccupation is a bit arcane.

Guy, in his early thirties, was a charming child who’s become a boor.

These children all want Sylvie to sweet-talk her father into making compassionate provision for Greta, because of course, they will eventually inherit from her.

As for Jack, Anderson portrays him with a dispassionate eye—there’s no sympathy for a man disabled by a stroke and dependent on others even to sit up in his chair.  He’s malevolent, even to the extent of denying Greta any money to run the household.  She is reduced to selling the rugs, while he is determined to rewrite his will.  (He still has the use of one hand to sign it.)

Fortunately, the novel picks up in Part Two.  It begins with the awkward revelation that the family lawyer, who’s been stalling the updating of the will, can’t hold off any longer. Ruefully, he tells Greta that it would be better for her if it could be left as it is, but he has to go away for a fortnight, and can’t defer it for that long without pricking his conscience.

It’s in this part of the book that Anderson ramps up the critique of Australia.  in a conversation about Sylvie’s desire to settle in Rome, Hermione says that having mucked up our own country, and made it hideous, we rush about looking at the remnants of beauty in other countries. 

‘The only thing wrong with this country is the people. The country itself is beautiful, it’s the stuff people have put on it.  If we had a population with any spirit and depth and courage, we would have an architecture.  As it is, we have none’. (p.122)

(This is probably an allusion to the furore over the Sydney Opera House, but they are also scornful about the suburbs denied a view of the harbour).

Steven complains about the lack of intelligent town planning, and Hermione about the second-rate population.  Rosamund, who fancies herself as a peace-maker, makes a droll speech about statues…

‘We have lovely statues, anyway,’ said Rosamund consolingly, as she poured the drinks and gave them to Steven. ‘All those governors in breeches with pigeons on their heads, and navigators holding telescopes, and the explorers lying down and dying, and Henry Lawson with his mate and his dog.  And the politicians, I like those best, I’ve always wanted a long metal overcoat myself. And then in the suburbs and country towns all those little Anzacs from the first world war.  And I adore those, because you can see the people were too poor to put up a man-sized one, or maybe just mean, so they made them about the size of Jazz [her son].  And they hold their guns so neatly and nicely at their sides, and don’t point them at anyone, which would have been more expensive.” (p.123)

So the interest in Part Two becomes two-fold: will love triumph and keep Sylvie in a country that makes her feel discontented, and who’s going to get the money? (It’s a lot, three or four hundred thousand, which was a tidy sum in 1977).  This was enough to keep me reading… but I still don’t think this novel is in the same class as other Miles Franklin winners, and I’ve read most of them though they’re not all reviewed on this blog.

Author: Jessica Anderson
Title: The Impersonators
Publisher: Macmillan Australia, 1980
Cover art: detail from Charles Blackman’s ‘Dreaming in the Street’ 1960
ISBN: 0333299256 / 9780333299258, First edition, hardback, 252 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand. $40.00


Responses

  1. Families seem to become so venal and grasping when there’s a will involved. Can’t say I feel attracted to this one – but I like that quotation about the statues.

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    • Yes, though the bit about the Anzacs is *so* cruel. In 1980 the excesses of Anzac commemoration were yet to happen. This comment—about the memorials of small country towns that had lost nearly all their young men and, since the bodies were not repatriated, had no burial ground in which to mourn them so had cobbled together what money they had for a statue—is emblematic of the way some protesters against the Vietnam War went too far, at a time when some of the wives and children of the Anzacs were still alive.
      Was Anderson satirising people who thought like this? Or is this what she herself thought? I don’t know.

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  2. Disappointing, Lisa. I think I may have read it long time ago. I lived in Sydney for a decade so know a bit of the culture. Australia is looking more like a failed real estate project every day. Just read Olga Masters ‘Long Time Dying’ which is so good.

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    • Oh you lucky thing! I love Olga Masters and that one’s been on my wishlist for ages.

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  3. Thanks for another great review Lisa. I really enjoyed “Tirra Lirra” but have not read anything else by Jessica Anderson, and I must say I am not very temped to try this one after reading your review. I do agree with your obvious liking for Transit of Venus, which I reread recently. It really is a most insightful book which has lost nothing over the years. A pity that it could not have been a Miles Franklin winner.
    I am also prompted to say, following your review, that as a crime fiction fan, I have found much of Peter Corris rather Ho-Hum, but that The Dying Trade is actually rather good.
    Keep them coming.
    Chris

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    • I love everything that Hazzard wrote, and I’m embarrassed that there’s so little of her work reviewed on this blog. I keep meaning to start re-reading Transit and The Great Fire, but then other books keep calling me.
      The Dying Trade was the first of a series, according to that Wikipedia page, so that would account for it being fresh and new rather than hackneyed. I bet crime writers get sick of writing the same old character time after time!

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  4. I looked up the Annals for all the novels published in 1980. I would have chosen Tracks by Robyn Davidson though it’s listed as autobiography. And for that matter Clive James’ Unreliable Memoirs is also from 1980. Most of the rest I know nothing about, I haven’t read Palomino, there’s a Beverly Farmer and Randolph Stow had The Girl Green as Elderflower

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    • Thanks for this, Bill… when you say the Annals, is this a particular book that you have in your library?
      The Beverly Farmer and the Randolph Stow should be added to that Wikipedia page…
      I remember reading Tracks, it was amazing.
      *pause to do a search for the Stow*
      It looks as if it was set in the UK not Australia and therefore not eligible for the MF. So now I’m wondering, was there a bit of a thing in OzLit in this period to jettison nationalism and write novels with a more international flavour? So the judges may not have had much to choose from?

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      • Almost after my very first post you asked Sue ‘Where is he getting that information from?’
        Hooton & Heseltine, Annals of Australian Literature, 2nd ed

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        • Ha ha, fading memories…
          So are the ones you’ve mentioned the only ones for that year?

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          • No, there’s heaps. Women with first novels are on my list from the other day, Nene Gate had a second. Others I don’t remember (and I’m away from my desk).

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            • Yes, quite a few novels, as you say Bill, Gabrielle Lord’s Fortress, one by Peter Corris, for example, and several with authors I don’t know.

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    • The Annals also has Murray Bail’s Homesickness, which might have been a contender, plus Blanche d’Alpuget’s Monkeys in the dark, and Beverley Farmer’s Alone (which Bill has alluded to), the Stow.

      Bill, Tracks is not a novel so not an MF contender.

      BTW The impersonators also won the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

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      • Well, someone needs to fix up that WP page!

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        • Haha Lisa .. Be my guest!! (Sorry, couldn’t resist that, but you know, the Wiki police are unlikely to disagree with that.)

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  5. Am reading Shirley Hazzard’s ‘Collected Stories” She is a wonderful writer and have Transit of Venus ( each reading is bring something new) ready for re-read and The Fire which have not (present from long time ago).Great review as always and will check my Jessica Anderson books for loved Tirra Lirra. I rescue Australian books from local op shops.

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    • I loved The Great Fire… it’s like Middlemarch, you can read it over and over and every time you love it more.
      Our Op Shops are treasure troves, long may they stay that way!

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  6. I loved Tirra Lirra by the River and will probably read The Impersonators if it comes my way.
    There is a statue of Matthew Flinders outside St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne that I walk past most days and there are nearly always pigeons sitting on his head so the first part of that quote made me smile, but making fun of the ANZAC statues was cruel and bears out your comment that the children were unlikeable characters.

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    • I wish we had more statues. There are hundreds of Australians who’ve done amazing things and we would all know their names better if there were statues of them. By not continuing the tradition of realistic sculpture, we’ve let the statues of historical figures come to dominate visual commemoration.
      We should start with more authors, of course.

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      • I’ve never thought much about statues, but you make a good point for connecting us better with a person who should be celebrated. I can probably think of more ‘big’ things in Australia than statues of people and I can’t think of any recent statues except for footballers and athletes around the MCG precinct.
        Authors would be an excellent starting point :)

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        • Yes, but also some of our brilliant medical researchers. How good it would have been if on school excursions to the city, I could have pointed out scientists and artists that kids could relate to and be inspired by.
          There is a statue of Alan Marshall outside the Sandringham library:)

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          • I did a quick search online to see if there might be a local from my side of town who could be celebrated outside my library but all I could find was the usual smattering of sportspeople. Surely that can’t be all my area has to offer? (I actually enjoy sport, but would prefer to see someone from another field commemorated).
            I’m glad Alan Marshall has a statue. My parents were dear friends with a very old fellow whose father, a country doctor, had treated AM when he was a child. Growing up, we felt this was a very personal connection and felt proud of his books and achievements. I grew up in the country some distance from where AM did although it was in the same general region, but there was a sense of pride in the whole community when his name was mentioned.

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            • Yes, Alan Marshall was a wonderful man, he deserves to be remembered.
              I’ve got a copy of the Literary Guide to Australia, if you let me know your area I can have a look in there to see if there are any notables…

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              • I’m in the west, in a new suburb.
                Chirnsides, Merv Hughes and Mary Reibey…
                While I can’t find a single notable author, we have got great libraries out my way :)

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                • What’s the nearest large town or established suburb?

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                • Werribee… Merv Hughes is it!

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  7. Hmm, Rose, you might be right… and yet, I know of authors and books that are not listed in the Oxford e.g. George Johnson’s My Brother Jack is set in Caulfield and the hospital features in it, but it’s not mentioned. I bet there were poets and diarists from the pioneering era in the stations around Werribee, maybe a local historical society might know more.
    Thinking of The Bridge, by Enza Gandolfo, who’s a teacher of writing at Victoria University (Footscray) … I bet she’s got students from Werribee in her classes, so maybe one day….

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